'Clones, Chiefs ready for first-round gridiron war

By Ivan Sanders
STAR STAFF
isanders@starhq.com

   After 16 weeks of gut-wrenching practices, a box of band-aids, and ten hard-fought contests, the Elizabethton Cyclones season comes down to the start of the most important reason for playing the regular season- the 2003 TSSAA football playoffs for a chance at a state championship.
   Tonight at Brown-Childress Stadium on the seasoned turf of Dave Rider Field, the Cyclones will entertain the Cherokee Chiefs, the fourth-place finishers out of Region 2-4A. The teams will square off to see which team stays alive for another week of action and which team will be turning in its gear come Monday.
   "After 16 weeks of football, we have came into our practices with the intentions of getting our work accomplished, watching game films, and reviewing scouting reports without getting anyone hurt," said head coach Tommy Jenkins of the week's preparations leading into tonight's contest.
   "The regular season is over and nobody cares what happened over the last 10 games. Cherokee could care less if we are the number one team up here or not. They are coming here to extend their season just like we are trying to do with ours."
   If the Cyclones (6-4) think that Cherokee (4-6) will be deflated after losing to the likes of a very talented Morristown West team, a tough Greeneville squad, and common opponent Tennessee High, they might need to clear their heads of those thoughts.
   According to The Rogersville Review in an article on Thursday, Coach Mike Sivert of Cherokee said: "We didn't get whipped at Morristown. Our players realized what was on the table, and they have good feelings on that and they're all looking forward to playing this week at Elizabethton."
   Entering the second season, the Cyclones have proven to everyone that, even after a rocky start in the regular season, they are beginning to peak at a crucial time. Past seasons have shown that no team can be overlooked regardless of its record and Cherokee is one of those teams that the Cyclones will have to handle like a rattlesnake hunter in catching his prey.
   Said Jenkins: "Those big backs they have that run straight at you scare us more than anything. It could be a very long night if we can't find a way to stop them. Cherokee plays in a tough league and have had key players injured through out the season at different games, but they are all healthy now. If they put together a good ballgame, they will be a tough foe."
   The Chiefs, meanwhile, have a huge task on their hands, as they must find a way to lasso a wild stallion in Lester Bailey, the Cyclones and Mountain Lakes Conference regular-season rushing champion with 1,058 yards and 15 total touchdowns. Fullback Justin Grace, 13th in the regular-season rushing race with 301 yards and two touchdowns, complements the table the Cyclones set in the backfield.
   If those two Cyclones aren't enough worries, throw in wide receiver Adam Turley, who also finished first in the conference at his position with 31 receptions for 481 yards and four scores, and the Chiefs might be unable to close all the doors the Cyclones can blow open.
   Add a season-matured quarterback in sophomore Weston Jeffers, and the Cyclone arsenal is a dangerous smorgasbord to pick from.
   Sivert mentioned the weapons that his team will have to counteract on the Cyclones roster in the Review's article.
   "They have somebody to go to with the long ball and Turley will hurt you that way," stated Sivert. "Bailey is a speed merchant and a very good open field runner. He sees his lanes and he hits them."
   The Cyclones could not have came as far as they have without the improved play of its offensive line that has improved leaps and bounds from game one. Line grunts like Jake Jenkins, Daniel Wagner, Josh Fair, David Anderson, and Trevor Hyder have paved the way for Bailey to leapfrog over his closest competitors to capture the regular season rushing title.
   "Our guys have gotten comfortable with the simplistic schemes we try to run and have discovered that if they give Lester or Grace a seam, they can break it for a long run," said offensive line coach Richard VanHuss. "Cherokee likes to run stunts quiet a bit and have some blitz packages, but if these guys are focused, they will be ready to get the job done."
   Defensively, the Cyclone linebackers will come into play in a huge way because of the backfield Cherokee will send at a team. If anyone is looking for the beef, they will find it in the Chiefs backs, which like to lower their heads and run over their opponents like a charging bull at an unexpected matador.
   On special teams, Cyclone place kicker Brian Freeman has booted a field goal in each of his last two games.
   For Elizabethton, the keys to an opening playoff victory are simple: 1) Score points because Cherokee will be hard to keep out of the end zone. 2) Keep the Chiefs from controlling the football and taking time off the clock. 3) If the game is lost, 20 seniors will have played its final football game, so the fact another game is in the balance should prove to be a motivational tool.
   Playing at home is also critical at this stage for numerous reasons.
   Said Jenkins: "It is very important to play at home. You don't have to take the long bus trip or plan a pre-game meal. It also helps that we are one of the few schools that maintain a high fan base. Our fans support us well. You see them and hear them as players and coaches and it just proves so beneficial for our fans to be there in their school colors, cheering us on."
   Fans need to be aware that game time for tonight's contest will be at 7 p.m., which is 30 minutes earlier than regular season kickoffs. There are no reserved seats for the playoffs, so everyone needs to come early and grab a prime seat before the stadium fills.